At first glance, it’s hard to discern whether these images of New York City are a super-stylized map, digital 3D-rendering, or perhaps simply a cute New Yorker illustration. In fact, they’re photographs of a 1:1200 scale model of the city housed in the Queens Museum.
The photographs are part of a series named New York, New York, New York, 2016, which photographer Spencer Lowell created in partnership with the Queens Museum for the Frieze New York art fair. The prints offer an unprecedented peek at the the level of detail found in this one-of-a-kind model, but also manipulate reality just enough to transport the viewer into some alternate-universe Gotham.
If you’re not familiar with the Panorama of the City of New York, it’s a pretty breathtaking piece of work. First constructed in 1964 for the World’s Fair, the panorama now includes 895,000 buildings—every single structure in New York City built before 1992. Although the first iteration of the city was built from foam and wood, the structures have been restored and updated several times, and recent additions include laser-etched and 3D printed models as well. The museum launched a building adoption program in 2009 to keep up with the ongoing maintenance costs, and some corporations have “bought” their headquarters to make sure they stay architecturally up-to-date.
But the fact that some parts of the model were over 50 years old presented a big challenge for Lowell. “It’s in a spotlit room where you can’t get too close, so it looks amazing in person,” he told Gizmodo. “But when we lit it and got in tight, we realized a lot of the facades were peeling, buildings were tilting and there was a thin layer of dust on everything.”
Because Lowell wanted the model to look hyperreal, almost like aerial photography, this required a bit of retouching—he estimates between 20 and 50 hours for each image—to achieve the desired vibrancy and depth.
There was also the issue of lighting and shooting a fragile model that’s half the size of a football field in a way that would look natural. “We ended up using a singular directional source mixed with some bounce cards to fill in shadows,” said Lowell. “Once we figured the lighting out, Queens Museum gave us a full run of the space and even allowed me to very carefully walk on the model.”
Even though the facades have been shined up in Photoshop, the resulting images provide views that the average viewer can’t really experience in person. Originally visitors circled the model in aerial “helicopters,” but now there’s a ramp that winds around the room, mostly traveling over the outer boroughs. It’s incredible to see the Manhattan skyscrapers up close in a way that you just wouldn’t be able to appreciate otherwise. And although Lowell has buffed the images to near-fantastical perfection, if you look closely at each of the images, you can see the giveaway textures which reveal this is not some backdrop for a new animated series but an actual three-dimensional object.
The prints start at $3,500 and are available for purchase from the Queens Museum, with a portion of the proceeds benefiting the museum’s public programming.